116 Year-Old Marries 21 Year-Old! Sleeping Beauty Awakens Contemporary Audience
by Dean Speer
February 14, 2004 -- Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City, Utah
What a great Valentine’s Day present for the citizenry of greater Salt Lake City to have Ballet West unveil its production of the timeless classic, "Sleeping Beauty." With Tchaikovsky’s glorious score and with staging and direction by Artistic Director, Jonas Kåge, based on Petipa, I was thrilled down to my toes to be treated to what I knew from viewing experience would be stellar dancing from all levels of Ballet West’s dancers. I was not disappointed. I like Ballet West and have enormous respect for its work.
My only criticisms of the staging are dramatic ones. In the Prologue, all the fairies are supposed to have given their gifts to the baby Princess Aurora, except for the Lilac Fairy. This is the saving grace that allows the Lilac Fairy to amend wicked Carabosse’s curse from death to long sleep. However, in this production, gifts (represented by objects) are brought on to the stage by pages, but are not presented to Aurora before the entrance of Carabosse. So this didn’t make visual logic to me.
The other is how Carabosse is dispatched by Prince Florimund in Act II. In this version the Lilac Fairy waves Carabosse away when she tries to insert herself into the action. Carabosse “hisses” and off she goes; “Curses! Foiled again!!” This seems dramatically weak to me. In the versions that I’m used to seeing, Prince Florimund actually kills Carabosse – usually with a well-placed stabbing. (Even in the Disney movie version – which is very dramatic and intense – she expires.) Perhaps PG or PG-13 is too much for Salt Lake City audiences.
While I’m on a roll here, I wanted to say out loud an oddity that I’ve observed in all "Sleeping Beauty" productions. Have you ever noticed that after 100 years have passed and the entire court has been asleep along with Aurora, that they all have aged – with the exception of the beauty herself!? In both this version and Pacific Northwest Ballet's they show up in Act III wearing wigs that suggest being older (King and Queen have gone white/faded brunette). (And in Pacific Northwest Ballet's they also have on later-period costumes, to suggest 100 years have passed, and I feel this showing of the passage of time is fine.) So how come Aurora is untouched? Spa treatments? A Nordstrom makeover? She is, after all, by my feeble calculations, 116 years old. My logic tells me that the whole court should re-appear, via the magic sleeping spell, unchanged. Okay, I CAN allow for a change of outfit, but to have physically changed? Hmm... Well maybe the fairy kingdom has its own rules.
The other oddity is one of the hall. While provided live music, very well played I might add, with experienced players and led by sympathetic conductors, I found it disconcerting that the music was miked. Odd to me that this is in the same hall that the Utah Opera uses (are their operas miked?). Seating is about 1,700 – not too big, so I’m curious why “they” feel this is necessary.
Long the dancing gem of the Inter-Mountain Region, Ballet West has had a 40-year history of excellent dancing by well-trained and bred artists supporting a solid artistic product and repertory. So it comes as no surprise, except perhaps to those not familiar with Ballet West, that the dancing was and is of a world-class effort with interpretations by the artists to match.
This was certainly true with Saturday night’s cast, led by senior artist Principal Dancer Maggie Wright as Aurora and Soloist Christopher Ruudmaking his Florimund début. Wright owned the stage right from her radiant Act I entrance and sustained high level of energy and youthful delight at her birthday/coming out party right up to the time she pricks her finger. The “Rose Adagio” was magnificent, exciting, and terrifying, and I was on the edge of my seat. I liked how Wright waited for and held her tendu until her cavalier was ready and then attacked the glissade précipité into the effacé attitude, where she is supported by only the one hand. She smiled at the audience each time one of the four promenades began, if only to reassure us and to let us know this 16 year-old was having a ball at her party. Only the third change of the guard (cavalier) presented a challenge as they changed hands but Wright quickly regained control, only slightly wobbling before resuming a strong and well-placed attitude.
And the three “fish dives” in the Act III Grand Pas de Deux (misspelled, by the way in the program) were WONDERFUL. I cannot stand it that the Kirov/St. Petersburg Ballet does not do these but rather puts in either a supported fall in sous-sus or a quick turn into arabesque. I’m so happy we do them in the West. It’s what my heart, mind, ear, and eye want and expect to see, and to me, it is one of those things in ballet choreography to live for. Wright and Ruud really came into their own as a dance couple during this very hard, duet. And rather than do the slow, développé rise from the effacé sitting position into attitude/arabesque, Wright chose to do a quick rélevé to arabesque and then she and Ruud did a vigorous promenade, concluding with the arabesque balance. This was the first time I’ve seen an alternate to the développé rise that really worked for me. Most, if they cannot handle or choose not to handle putting the right foot up on to pointe, holding it, and then making a slow passé développé, will attempt some kind of compromise that, for, me ends up being neither fish nor fowl and just not satisfactory. So I really liked this, as I felt it was in keeping with the style and was also virtuosic.
Any company would be thrilled to have any of these dancers in their midst and I wanted to mention a few that really impressed me. Among these are Ross Bearden, whose elevation during his assemblés in the Act III Pas de Trois was truly amazing and Olympic-record high. He was well matched with partners Christiana Bennett and Kate Crews. Viktorija Jansone’s Lilac Fairy was very much above the norm. Her delight during her Prologue solo was infectious and her dramatic change to protector of the innocent was remarkable and dramatically satisfying. She really and fearlessly attacked her dancing. Attitude turns finishing into rock-solid plié tendu, not a problem! Tonia Stefiuk and Du Hai were strong and charming in their interpretations of the famous Bluebird Pas de Deux. And hurray! for her for making her solo as it should be; battement devant and développé back while hopping on pointe with the same, right leg! Too many switch legs, and to me, this spoils the effect. The only “variation” that I missed seeing during Act III was Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. Perhaps cut because of time?
Congratulations and thanks to Ballet West for continuing to present programs and dancing of the highest caliber and for kissing me lightly on my ballet cheek as it re-awakened my own interest in the Company after not having seen them live in about four or so years. As I’m fond of saying about Seattle’s PNB, I hope Salt Lake and greater Utah appreciate and cherish what they have in their own backyard.
As an interesting, informational bit of news, I should note that Ballet West Company and School are planning on building and moving headquarters to a new facility made especially for them, which will be known as the Jessie Eccles Quinney Center for Dance which will be located in a neighborhood known as “Sugar House.” I got to look at renderings of the new plant, and it’s exciting to imagine Ballet West finally having its components under one roof.
I also wanted to mention that ballet mistress, Pamela Robinson gave a delightful "warm-up" prior to the "Sleeping Beauty" curtain. She reported that she performed with the company from 1985 to 1998 (when asked). Among other things, she told us that the company spent about four weeks, working 6 hours Monday-Friday, in preparation. And that the company is on a 38-week contract, which is being extend slightly this Summer due to their tour to the Edinburgh Festival.
She also said that she had had a long desire to perform Aurora, which she finally did in her mid-30s, and that while she enjoyed it and was grateful for the opportunity, doing it the one season was enough. That it's a hard and "exposed" role and tough to do. Being a Swan Queen was easier!